Steve’s latest book is The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War against Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 2015), which tells the stories of the African-American abolitionists who joined John Brown’s attempt to free the slaves of Virginia. His other related book is John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook (Yale University Press, 2012); finalist for the Society of Midland Authors Biography Award). Read a more extensive biographical sketch on his academic website here.
JAB: I’m wondering first if you would discuss how the work of a legal scholar has led you to doing so much history. You’ve written now extensively on the John Brown story, but you have also addressed other themes in history. What is it about historical research that informs your sensibilities as a legal scholar, and how has your specialization in law informed your treatment of historical themes?
SL: It all began with Wyatt Earp. My original plan was to use the OK Corral prosecution as a way of illuminating contemporary trial strategy. So I didn’t set out to become a historian; I was just looking for a way to make my legal writing more interesting to readers. But the more deeply I got into the story, the more I realized that the historical context was inseparable from the lawyers’ art. Of course, I know that as an abstraction from the beginning, but writing about a nineteenth century trial really made it more concrete.
JAB. You and I have some initial correspondence that goes way back, perhaps more than fifteen years ago—I think when you were preparing Nothing but the Truth: Why Trial Lawyers Don't, Can't & Shouldn't Have to Tell the Whole Truth (2001). Was this your initial inroad into the John Brown story, and why was he a factor in that work?
As I was working on the Wyatt Earp material, I began looking for other historical trials that could be used as examples of lawyering. I came across John Brown almost by accident, and I used the trial as the basis for a law review article and a book chapter. I’m afraid that my initial work on Brown was not very good, given that it considered only very the end of the story. I hope nobody reads it now. I will say that I made one important point by calling the Harper’s Ferry prosecution the “most consequential trial in U.S. history,” which I think is still accurate. Other cases may have been more consequential by virtue of U.S. Supreme Court opinions, but Brown’s trial had a greater impact on American history than any other trial court case.
JAB. I am assuming that your work on John Cook and John Anthony Copeland were part of a larger interest in the John Brown that had been with you since at least your writing Nothing But the Truth. Over the decade between the Nothing But the Truth and the publication of John Brown’s Spy, had you been thinking of writing further on the Old Man, and how did you then decide to focus on Brown’s men?
SL: Murder in Tombstone (my Wyatt Earp book) was very well received, and my agent asked me to write another book about historical trials. I wanted to address something with more contemporary resonance than an Old West shootout, so I began looking at cases under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It turned out that there were quite a few such cases, and the represented an early version of what we now call the civil rights bar. The result was a book called Fugitive Justice, which involved in-depth treatment of four important fugitive slave cases in the decade before the Civil War. Fugitive Justice included an epilogue about John Brown, explaining how resistance to slavery eventually led to Harper’s Ferry. In the course of writing and researching the epilogue, I came across the Cook and Copeland trials, which eventually led to John Brown’s Spy and The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry.
JAB. For better or worse, how has your understanding of the John Brown story changed over the years of your research? Do you understand Brown the same in 2016 as you did in 2000?
SL: My understanding of Brown was thin in 2000, essentially limited to his persona at trial. I hope I have achieved a much broader understanding in the years since, including a far deeper appreciation of his egalitarianism and profound opposition to slavery, which was indeed unique for his time. I have learned a great deal about abolitionist lawyers who were sincere in their struggle against slavery, but Brown stands out for his total dedication to the cause. I have also learned about the risks undertaken by members of the free black community in the north, which has not been sufficiently recognized.
JAB. For those who may be interested in reading your life of John Cook, what are some nuggets you might share about John Brown’s Spy? Did your research on Cook prove the man you expected to find or were you surprised by him in any way?
SL: The greatest surprise about John Cook was his similarity to some of the radicals I knew in the 1960s peace movement. He was attracted to the cause not only out of principle, but also for the sense of excitement it brought to his life. He was very human in that regard, but not fully dependable. Nonetheless, Brown ended up trusting Cook with some of his most sensitive assignments, either in error or out of necessity.
I was also surprised by the great amount of material that was available regarding Cook, none of which had been previously published, including letters, memoirs, and several of his poems (which, I have to say, were pretty good, all things considered).
JAB. After Cook, you took on the story of another Harper’s Ferry raider who stood trial and was hanged. What drew you to John Anthony Copeland and was the research and materials you had access to in preparing The “Colored” Hero of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery?
SL: Just as JB’s Spy was a follow up to Fugitive Justice, “Colored Hero” was started from research that I had not used in the Cook biography. Unfortunately, the antebellum press paid much less attention to the African-Americans in Brown’s party than to well-educated white men like Cook, so I had to dig much deeper to get the story.
JAB: Similarly, what highlights might you wish to share about the Copeland book that you would want people to know, perhaps even investigate in reading your book for themselves?
SL: Here are a couple of facts I discovered that have never been known before: There was a connection between John Copeland and Brown’s Chatham conference, and that may have been how Copeland and Lewis Leary (both from Oberlin) were initially alerted to Brown’s plan. There was also a connection between Copeland (and therefore Brown) and Thomas Ruffin, the racist chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Ruffin’s cousin Edmund was a leading secessionist firebrand who was present at Brown’s execution and was later given the honor of firing the first shot at Fort Sumter.
JAB. You are now one of the leading contributors to the literature on the John Brown theme in the 21st century, and your work has provided significantly to our study. Would you consider exploring further the lives of Brown’s men? I know that Brian McGinty wrote about Brown’s trial (2009). Do you think there are any other legal history aspects that might be further explored in the Brown story?
SL: My current plans do not include writing anything more about John Brown, but one should never say never.
JAB. I do not know if you know R. Blakeslee Gilpin personally and I do not want to put you on the spot; I do not know him and have no personal reason to dislike him as such, although I reviewed his John Brown book and found it rife with errors and biographically untrustworthy, at least in the chapters specifically about Brown’s life. I was, then, a bit annoyed when he reviewed John Brown’s Spy in Civil War History a couple of years ago, and presumed to write of that it “does not make a convincing case that any of the individual raiders, particularly John Cook, deserve more than ‘an extended magazine article.’” In fact, I found it hard to believe that someone who lives in such a poorly constructed glass house of scholarship would presume to throw such stones at an important book like John Brown’s Spy. How would you respond to Gilpin’s criticisms?
SL: As an undergraduate history major in the 1960s, I was deeply influenced by the school of “New Left Historians,” who argued that history should be taught “from the bottom up,” rather than on the “great man” theory. I still believe that we can learn a great deal by studying the lives of ordinary people, rather than concentrate only on their leaders. Gilpin’s criticism therefore struck me as quite bizarre. Of course, I don’t expect every reviewer to like my books (although review of JB’s Spy were otherwise excellent), but it seemed almost cynical for a historian to dismiss the stories of ordinary men who gave their lives to fight slavery.
JAB. My last question might have been the first question. When did you first hear of John Brown and what did you first learn about him? Would he have been a hero in the context of your own upbringing, or would he have been a problematic figure to those who helped you construct your initial worldview?
SL: My parents were active in the civil rights movement from the time I was a small child, as were my paternal grandparents in the 1930s (my maternal grandparents did not live in this country), so I was not really exposed to the negative stories about John Brown that were common in the 1950s. I learned instead that he was heroic, although somewhat misguided. In my upbringing, slavery was the ultimate evil in U.S. history, and there was nothing redeeming about the Confederacy or the “Lost Cause,” which was the direct predecessor of Jim Crow, Bull Connor, and George Wallace. If Brown was not a figure to be emulated, he was certainly someone to be respected.
Other books of interest by Steven Lubet:
Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial (Harvard University Press, 2010; honorable mention, Langum Prize for American Legal History); The Importance of Being Honest: How Lying, Secrecy and Hypocrisy Collide with Truth in Law (NYU Press, 2008); Lawyers’ Poker: 52 Lessons that Lawyers Can Learn from Card Players (Oxford University Press, 2006); Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp (Yale University Press, 2004), and Nothing But the Truth: Why Trial Lawyers Don’t, Can’t, and Shouldn’t Have to Tell the Whole Truth (NYU Press, 2001).